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Book Review

Evolution

Reviewed by Robert J. Sawyer

The review was first published in The New York Review of Science Fiction in September 2003.
Evolution by Stephen Baxter, Del Rey, 578 pages, February 2003, US$25.95.

Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved


In Evolution, Stephen Baxter does nothing less than take us on a journey from the dawn of primate life to the far, far post-human future. The obvious comparison is to Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, but I was also reminded of the final section of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine (not surprising, given that Baxter previously wrote a wonderful sequel to it, The Time Ships). Evolution is an ambitious novel, and a very important work.

And yet, its ambition is more in conception than execution. Any competent hard-SF writer could have written most of Evolution; there's nothing spectacular in the telling of the bulk of the story. Indeed, there are enough rough sentences, that it's clear the book could have used one more pass through the word processor.

There are also a few glaring errors, including a character who doesn't know what date it is putting enormous stock in the fact that Mars can't be seen in the night sky (there's nothing abnormal about that; Mars is often in the daytime sky, and therefore invisible).

And Baxter makes up names for future geological epochs, "Neocene" and "Ulticene," which he translates as the ages of "new life" and "last life," respectively. The good doctor's Cambridge education is letting him down, though: the suffix "-cene" means "recent," not "life," so his future ages are really the "new recent" and "last recent," whatever the heck those terms might mean.

Of course, these are quibbles; more significant for whether any given reader will like or dislike this remarkable book is Baxter's decision to eschew almost any notion of plot or character — a bold move. Although there's a slim framing story involving an African-American paleoanthropologist (almost an SF cliché, seen — with a defter touch, I must say — in such other books as Roger MacBride Allen's Orphan of Creation), the bulk of Evolution is a collection of vignettes, told from the point of view of representative members of various primate genera. Baxter starts with the very first primate, Purgatorius, whose existence supposedly just overlapped with the end of the dinosaurs.

Actually, this is another SF cliché; most paleontologists really consider Purgatorius as coming from the Paleocene, the first epoch after the demise of the dinosaurs, but SF writers — myself among them — have latched on to one contested tooth that might make Purgatorius contemporaneous with the last of the great saurians. The idea of having a primate brain looking out on the death of the dinosaurs is irresistible, of course, and Baxter uses it to great effect.

(Still, as an amusing aside, Baxter's choice to begin the story with Purgatorius leads to the bizarre Library of Congress cataloging of the book as "Montana — Fiction," since that's where Purgatorius fossils come from.)

Most of Baxter's vignettes — underscoring that life has always been nasty, brutish, and short — really aren't science fiction. They're largely indistinguishable from the narrative reconstructions of the lives of extinct animals that fill so many pages in pop-sci nonfiction, such as Dale A. Russell's classic An Odyssey in Time: The Dinosaurs of North America. Indeed, it's not insignificant that Baxter chose to subtitle his book A Novel, since there really is some question on that score.

In another bold, and I think wonderfully successful move, Baxter shows how insignificant the species Homo sapiens is by dispensing with all of its history in one brief episode, set during the declining days of the Roman Empire.

Only in a very few places in the first two-thirds of the book does Baxter indulge in his signature big-ideas speculation, giving us brief glimpses of a giant airwhale and of tool-using dinosaurs, both of which sadly escaped being recorded in the fossil record.

But the Baxter readers know and love arrives in full strength in the book's last hundred pages, giving us a tour de force of future world-building. His vision of post-humans living in a bizarre symbiosis with the sentient trees they have returned to is as haunting an image as any to be found in science fiction.

Evolution will be discussed as much for Baxter's creative choices as for its sweeping (and quite bleak) view of the history of life, but either way you choose to look at it, it's a fascinating book.

Robert J. Sawyer, whose latest novel is Hominids (Tor)


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